Whitehaven regained most of its losses once authorities straightened out the hoax, but that incident—and others like it—highlights the power of a fake press release.
Today, April Fools’ Day, is a holiday that practically celebrates fake releases, which means the companies that distribute them are on alert.
“In addition to our normal vetting process, we are extra cautious and our editorial staff is instructed to be on high alert for parody or joke releases,” a spokesperson for PR Newswire said. “We also guide our editorial team to escalate any questionable releases to higher supervision.”
The company has said that it receives numerous “prank” press releases on April 1.
“After enjoying a laugh while reading them (some are really funny!) we have to say no to sending them out over the wire,” Brett Simon, a national manager of media relations for PR Newswire, said in a blog post last year.
Both Marketwire and Vocus, which owns the press release distribution service PRWeb, told PR Dailythat their usual precautions and review processes will ensure hoaxes don’t hit the wire.
“Every day, Marketwire puts releases through our extensive editorial review process to ensure a level of comfort and security for clients,” said Michael Nowlan, CEO of Marketwire.
Reputations are at stake
Nearly every company PR Daily contacted for this story mentioned reputation—ensuring fake releases don’t hit the wire protects their reputation as well as those of their clients and the journalists covering them.
“If a reporter is burned on an April Fools’ story, they are not likely to be open to your subsequent story outreach,” said Thomas Becktold, senior vice president of marketing at Business Wire.
The Associated Press, for example, is rather humorless about April Fools’ Day.
“We don’t consider April Fool’s jokes to be very funny,” AP standards editor Tom Kent told Business Wire. “We have a responsibility to get the facts right.”
Business Wire published Kent’s statements on its blog last week in a post about the precautions it takes on April 1. Becktold explained those precautions to PR Daily.
“Our account executives reach out to our members each year to remind them of our policy,” he said. “Importantly, our editors in our many local newsrooms are familiar with our clients. They are instructed to be vigilant for April Fools’ copy and alert management if a story raises any red flags for veracity. We’ll reach out to clients with questionable copy and reject it if need be.”
What if a company wants to send a fake release?
Of course, April Fools’ Day isn’t the sole provenance of anti-corporate pranksters. Often, it’s the corporations that get in on the act—they’ve even carried out some of the most memorable April Fools’ Day gags.
For instance, Burger King released a press release on April 1, 1998, announcing the creation of its newest sandwich, the Left-Handed Whopper. Even though it was a joke, lefties lined up to buy the sandwich.
On April Fools’ Day three years ago, Google, which commonly pulls pranks on April 1, issued a press release claiming it had renamed itself after Topeka, Kan.
Prank releases aren’t limited to the corporate world, either. Last year, the press office for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a release saying the mayor had filed a Freedom of Information Act request to “learn more about himself,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“I think there is a place for irreverent releases,” said Mitch Delaplane, a Chicago-based PR professional and college instructor.
Delaplane is something of an expert on irreverence in press releases. For a flooring client, he issued the world’s largest press release using the company’s product. The release was 8 feet tall.
On another occasion, Delaplane put out a release via PR Newswire under the headline, “Most Amazing Press Release Ever Written.” The release got major pickup, with a variety of major media outlets (such as The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and TechCrunch) covering it. New York Times tech columnist David Pogue thought it was hilarious. Despite the praise, the release drew sharp criticism from PR practitioners.
“The editorial team at PR Newswire took a big gamble … and it worked extremely well for both of us,” he said. “So sometimes it works. As a rule, I think it’s best to avoid complete trickery where media feel duped or mislead.”
A PR Newswire spokesperson said the company allows “light-hearted, fun releases” as long as they don’t dupe anyone.
“We still won’t allow the distribution of fake releases [on April Fools’ Day], even if the company is admitting it’s phony or doing it in the spirit of the day,” the company said.
Marketwire, on the other hand, said it will work with clients that want to put out a release for the holiday.
“We do realize that some clients want to have April Fools’ Day fun,” said Nowlan. “We work with clients—who must be authorized senders—to add a disclaimer to holiday-related news to avoid any confusion.”
The releases that carry an April Fools’ Day disclaimer are shared only via social media or the Web, not through financial terminals or tickers, according to a Marketwire spokesperson.
Business Wire doesn’t allow fake press releases, disclaimer or not.
“We don’t think it’s a good practice,” Becktold said. “We’ve seen this blow up and seen almost universal reaction from reporters—they don’t have time for it.”
Lean newsrooms mean reporters and editors are busier than ever. Wasting their time with a fake news release might turn them off, according to Becktold. Worse yet, in their haste, a journalist might miss a disclaimer and report on the topic.
Becktold said Business Wire counsels clients on why mixing news and fake content is a bad idea. If they still want to issue a fake release, Business Wire will refer them to another service.
Be careful what you share
Beyond the world of press releases, media companies and bloggers are also responsible for pranks on April 1—even if the AP doesn’t think they’re funny. The BBC, for instance, has infrequently run fake stories on this day, the first of which—its famous “Swiss spaghetti harvest” piece—appeared in 1957.
More recently, the BBC ran a report on flying penguins:
That video went viral, and has 3.3 million views on YouTube, as more than a few people have shared it, suggesting the report was real. (Just read the comments. A debate rages after someone quite sincerely explains the science of flying penguins—it has to do with their ability to swim underwater.)
Although the BBC’s fake reports are harmless fun, more malicious rumors or poorly reported stories have spread quickly on social media sites. So be careful what you share—today and every day.